Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
Translated by Sam Taylor
The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.
This French bestseller has such a killer first line – they put it on the front cover. You’re left with no doubt that ‘The Perfect Nanny‘ (as this book has been titled in the US, but without the first line on the front cover), is the one whodunnit from the outset. It’s an audacious beginning, but it does hook the reader immediately, and we read on to find out why she did it. Moroccan-born author Leïla Slimani has also been in the news with Président Macron choosing her to be his literary ambassador so her book having won the Prix Goncourt is guaranteed even bigger sales worldwide.
However reviews have been mixed…
Harriet, reviewing it for Shiny here, loved it, as did Eric at Lonesome Reader here. Whereas Kim at Reading Matters here and Tony at Tony’s Book World here didn’t. For every positive review I’ve seen, I’ve read one that wasn’t as enthusiastic. Having bought a copy of the book after reading Harriet’s review, I was very keen to see which camp I’d fall into!
Back to the book…
Myriam and Paul have two children and live in a small but perfectly formed flat in one of Paris’s posher arondissements. Myriam, a lawyer, slightly desperate from several years staying at home with their young family decides to return to work. There’s no question of a nursery – they need a nanny. They don’t use an agency, they advertise and are amazed when they find Louise, a slim, white woman, a widow with a grown-up daughter, whom the children instantly take to, as do they.
“My nanny is a miracle-worker.” That is what Myriam says when she describes Louise’s sudden entrance into their lives. …
Of course, Louise’s wages are a burden on the family budget, but Paul no longer complains about that. In a few weeks, Louise’s presence has become indispensable. …
When Myrian gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfils the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myrian guiltily nurses.
In addition to looking after the children, Louise cooks, cleans and makes their small apartment seem bigger with her tidying and rearranging. She insinuates herself into their lives so successfully, that Myrian and Paul begin to take her for granted. The author plays with our sympathies – Myriam and Paul are privileged, bourgeois, and frankly not very likeable for the most part – but we know the awful thing that’s to come for them already, but it’s hard to bond with Louise when in their milieu.
This novel really brings out the differences between the (educated) haves and the have-nots in Parisian society. When she leaves Myriam and Paul’s chic abode, Louise must travel to a seedy bedsit on the Paris outskirts. She’s poor, but hides it very well from her employers. She has no acquaintances other than Wafa, another nanny who makes befriending Louise, the only white nanny in the park, a challenge. Her situation gradually worsens, but that on its own is only a part of the picture that builds up of Louise’s life and state of mind.
All the while, we’re looking for the cracks to appear, what is it that makes Louise snap and commit the horrific act?
So, which camp did I fall into, and why?
I love a well-written psychological thriller. Some of the best I’ve read in recent years have all been French – Pascal Garnier and Frédéric Dard‘s claustrophobic novellas and Pierre Lemaitre’s marvelously twisted and gory Verhoeven Trilogy. All of these are immaculately plotted and give the reader a real sense of relief when closure arrives. They combine action, detection, psychological drama in fast-moving character-driven plots. Lullaby, while possessing the basic promise of a psychological drama, was unlike any of these – I felt it was trying too hard to be literary at the same time, and because of this, didn’t pull off the ‘thrilleryness’ needed.
Slight spoiler alert
I also tend to dislike most whydunnits. Pierre Lemaitre’s recent novel Three Days and a Life was one such, and it was less successful for me because of that – but it did achieve something that Lullaby lacks – closure. Lullaby never definitively gives us this, leaving an unsavoury feeling behind and loads of questions about motivation as other reviewers have picked up on.
End of Spoiler Alert
Lastly there’s the prose. It jumps about between first and third person which was irritating, and I didn’t find the text particularly riveting to read – whether this is the original or the translation isn’t clear. I’ve read Sam Taylor’s translation of HHhH but that book irritated the hell out of me, however I really enjoyed Taylor’s own novel The Island at the End of the World, so I’m no clearer on that score. In conclusion, for me Lullaby was OK, but not special – so I fall on the side of the disappointed. (6.5/10).
Source: Own copy
Leila Slimani, Lullaby trans Sam Taylor (Faber, 2018) flapped paperback, 208 pages.
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